"More oversight" and national security

Al Johnson
I was greatly amused this morning when I heard on the radio the news of the latest misstep by the FBI.  I only caught the tail end of the broadcast, and as I heard the story the bottom line was that Attorney General Gonzalez had stated that the FBI was in need of greater oversight with regard to the Patriot Act.  I waited with bated breath for the next repeat of the story, wondering what the latest outrage might be--had the FBI been discovered to be operating hit teams against terrorist suspects, or perhaps sending them for interrogation in Middle Eastern countries?  Had they been blackmailing suspects with the results of unsanctioned wiretaps?

As it turned out, the Bureau's accounting procedures had been found wanting.  It appeared that their count of National Security Letters (NSL) that had been issued to banks and businesses under the provisions of the Patriot Act were low by about twenty percent.  Please note--the offense wasn't that the Bureau had been inveigling the records from the banks and businesses without the proper authorization.  No, the paperwork was in order but had been miscounted.  Horrors! What might lie ahead for the nation, an FBI led coup d'etat?

So to remedy this hair raising situation we are told that "more oversight" is required.  Now, what does "more oversight" mean in the real world?  Are we to imagine that Senators and their staffers will sit on one side of a large table and watch while Bureau lackies sit on the other side, counting up the NSLs?  Why, no.  This is undoubtedly a job for the National Security Branch of the Department of Justice, and more specifically, for the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review (OIPR), those diligent attorneys who stand as a bulwark between terrorists and the citizenry of this nation.

By "bulwark," of course, I mean "the Wall."  Yes, the same OIPR attorneys who brought us the infamous Wall that led directly to 9/11 will be tasked to provide "more oversight" for the Bureau, to fashion more administrative gotchas to keep the Bureau on its toes.  God forbid that pieces of paper should be miscounted!

This exercise seems to me to be reminiscent of the too well known practice of "solving" major problems by throwing money at them.  How many major problems have been solved in that fashion?  Not many.  But now we will throw attorneys at this paper counting problem.  Do you know of even a single significant problem that has been solved by throwing attorneys at it?  Me neither.  And this will undoubtedly prove to be the proverbial camels nose under the tent--there will be even "more oversight" to follow once these new administrative procedures are put in place.

Am I being too flippant?  Well, look at it this way.  We all know that the Bureau has problems, important problems.  Terrorists flying planes into buildings, spies in its own ranks, people sending anthrax through the mail, neocons claiming to have bad memories about matters that aren't criminal, an inability to hire agents who speak relevant languages, like Arabic.  Big, big problems, most of them self-inflicted.  Yet is it likely that "more oversight" as envisioned by AG Gonzalez will help solve any of those big problems?  I say, to the extent that the Bureau throws more resources at paper counting, to that extent will its anti-terror efforts be weakened.  As a matter of historical fact we now know that prior to 9/11 OIPR and the FISA Court had the Bureau virtually tied in knots with the Wall, afraid of the slightest misstep--afraid to even ask for a search warrant for Moussaoui's computer.  There is no doubt that the oversight system that was put in place in the aftermath of the Church Committee--a system which views our intelligence agencies as as great or an even greater threat than al Qaeda--has effectively neutered our National Security agencies efforts by insuring that they expend vast amounts of their very limited resources on purely administrative matters.  Like counting pieces of paper.

For a refreshing perspective on the issue of civil rights versus national security I highly recommend a reading of Bret Stephen's recent article in the Wall Street Journal.
Stephens makes the interesting point that wiretap record keeping in Britain consists of advising the Home Secretary--presumably in writing.  Period.  No judges are involved, no special courts, no legions of attorneys.  From our perspective, that would be a little like sending a letter to the Secretary of Homeland Security.  Imagine the howls from the left that we would hear if any serious person proposed such a system for administering wiretaps, much less National Security Letters.  And yet...is Britain a totalitarian state?  The simple fact is that the U.S. Senate wants a finger in virtually every pudding, and once there it never steps away from the table.  Nor is any part of the Executive bureaucracy about to turn down a call for it to exercise "oversight."  "More oversight" means more jobs for overseers, means bigger budgets, means greater prestige. 

Mr. Stephens notes that "All this calls into question the seriousness, if not the sincerity, of European complaints that under the Bush administration the U.S. has become a serial human-rights violator."  Very true, but it also calls into question those on this side of the Atlantic who profess to fear for our civil liberties, and seek to tie our intelligence agencies' hands behind their backs.   Sadly, it's a question of power--bureaucratic and political--not of national security.

Maybe  we don't need more "oversight". Maybe we need a Director of the FBI and an Attorney General who can communicate and have the fortitude to call their critics out when they go so over the line.
I was greatly amused this morning when I heard on the radio the news of the latest misstep by the FBI.  I only caught the tail end of the broadcast, and as I heard the story the bottom line was that Attorney General Gonzalez had stated that the FBI was in need of greater oversight with regard to the Patriot Act.  I waited with bated breath for the next repeat of the story, wondering what the latest outrage might be--had the FBI been discovered to be operating hit teams against terrorist suspects, or perhaps sending them for interrogation in Middle Eastern countries?  Had they been blackmailing suspects with the results of unsanctioned wiretaps?

As it turned out, the Bureau's accounting procedures had been found wanting.  It appeared that their count of National Security Letters (NSL) that had been issued to banks and businesses under the provisions of the Patriot Act were low by about twenty percent.  Please note--the offense wasn't that the Bureau had been inveigling the records from the banks and businesses without the proper authorization.  No, the paperwork was in order but had been miscounted.  Horrors! What might lie ahead for the nation, an FBI led coup d'etat?

So to remedy this hair raising situation we are told that "more oversight" is required.  Now, what does "more oversight" mean in the real world?  Are we to imagine that Senators and their staffers will sit on one side of a large table and watch while Bureau lackies sit on the other side, counting up the NSLs?  Why, no.  This is undoubtedly a job for the National Security Branch of the Department of Justice, and more specifically, for the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review (OIPR), those diligent attorneys who stand as a bulwark between terrorists and the citizenry of this nation.

By "bulwark," of course, I mean "the Wall."  Yes, the same OIPR attorneys who brought us the infamous Wall that led directly to 9/11 will be tasked to provide "more oversight" for the Bureau, to fashion more administrative gotchas to keep the Bureau on its toes.  God forbid that pieces of paper should be miscounted!

This exercise seems to me to be reminiscent of the too well known practice of "solving" major problems by throwing money at them.  How many major problems have been solved in that fashion?  Not many.  But now we will throw attorneys at this paper counting problem.  Do you know of even a single significant problem that has been solved by throwing attorneys at it?  Me neither.  And this will undoubtedly prove to be the proverbial camels nose under the tent--there will be even "more oversight" to follow once these new administrative procedures are put in place.

Am I being too flippant?  Well, look at it this way.  We all know that the Bureau has problems, important problems.  Terrorists flying planes into buildings, spies in its own ranks, people sending anthrax through the mail, neocons claiming to have bad memories about matters that aren't criminal, an inability to hire agents who speak relevant languages, like Arabic.  Big, big problems, most of them self-inflicted.  Yet is it likely that "more oversight" as envisioned by AG Gonzalez will help solve any of those big problems?  I say, to the extent that the Bureau throws more resources at paper counting, to that extent will its anti-terror efforts be weakened.  As a matter of historical fact we now know that prior to 9/11 OIPR and the FISA Court had the Bureau virtually tied in knots with the Wall, afraid of the slightest misstep--afraid to even ask for a search warrant for Moussaoui's computer.  There is no doubt that the oversight system that was put in place in the aftermath of the Church Committee--a system which views our intelligence agencies as as great or an even greater threat than al Qaeda--has effectively neutered our National Security agencies efforts by insuring that they expend vast amounts of their very limited resources on purely administrative matters.  Like counting pieces of paper.

For a refreshing perspective on the issue of civil rights versus national security I highly recommend a reading of Bret Stephen's recent article in the Wall Street Journal.
Stephens makes the interesting point that wiretap record keeping in Britain consists of advising the Home Secretary--presumably in writing.  Period.  No judges are involved, no special courts, no legions of attorneys.  From our perspective, that would be a little like sending a letter to the Secretary of Homeland Security.  Imagine the howls from the left that we would hear if any serious person proposed such a system for administering wiretaps, much less National Security Letters.  And yet...is Britain a totalitarian state?  The simple fact is that the U.S. Senate wants a finger in virtually every pudding, and once there it never steps away from the table.  Nor is any part of the Executive bureaucracy about to turn down a call for it to exercise "oversight."  "More oversight" means more jobs for overseers, means bigger budgets, means greater prestige. 

Mr. Stephens notes that "All this calls into question the seriousness, if not the sincerity, of European complaints that under the Bush administration the U.S. has become a serial human-rights violator."  Very true, but it also calls into question those on this side of the Atlantic who profess to fear for our civil liberties, and seek to tie our intelligence agencies' hands behind their backs.   Sadly, it's a question of power--bureaucratic and political--not of national security.

Maybe  we don't need more "oversight". Maybe we need a Director of the FBI and an Attorney General who can communicate and have the fortitude to call their critics out when they go so over the line.